Sharks' Tim Heed, Joakim Ryan fill in nicely in Erik Karlsson's absence


Sharks' Tim Heed, Joakim Ryan fill in nicely in Erik Karlsson's absence

SAN JOSE -- You could see over the Sharks’ last two games they missed having Erik Karlsson on the ice. The boost the defenseman provides on both sides of the ice, and in every phase of the game, was no doubt missed.

But one thing Karlsson mentioned to the media before he began serving his two-game suspension was that he had every bit of faith his teammates would rise to the occasion in his absence.

“I think they’re going to rally around it,” the two-time Norris Trophy winner said Sunday before the Sharks hosted the Arizona Coyotes. “I think we have a great team in there no matter who we’re missing.”

If anybody rallied, it was the two blue-liners who took his place over the last two games.

Both Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed had taken turns playing with Brent Burns in the early part of the season, but neither had seen any game action since Czech rookie Radim Simek made his debut against the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 2. Ryan hadn’t played since Dec. 1, and Heed hadn’t since Nov. 23. That’s a significant amount of time where both players were practicing with the team and then observing games from afar.

Ryan told NBC Sports California ahead of San Jose's 4-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks he spent that time studying what the Sharks’ defense was doing, as well as how the opposition played.

“My whole life, when I’m watching hockey, as a defenseman you watch your team and you watch the defensemen on the other team,” he explained. “You see if you can pick anything up. Just watching the game and working out the D on both sides.”

The observation paid off when Ryan drew back into the lineup Thursday evening against the Ducks. He tallied a secondary assist when his shot from the blue line led to Marcus Sorensen’s second-period goal and ended the evening with a plus-1.

Heed also had a positive impact when he returned to the lineup on Dec. 23 --a whole month since the last time he’d seen any game action. Although the Sharks lost to the Coyotes, Heed lit the lamp by putting the Sharks up 1-0 with a slap shot on the power play. 

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer extended Heed's ice time as the contest went on, and even paired him back up with Burns for a few shifts. His performance was strong enough there was some brief speculation that another strong performance against the Ducks could earn him a ticket back into the lineup over Simek. But Heed, unfortunately, sustained an injury in that game and was sidelined while Ryan filed into the lineup. He returned to practice on Friday ahead of San Jose’s road trip up to Canada.

Which brings us up to speed. With Karlsson returning to game action against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, both Ryan and Heed go back to practicing with the team and then watching from afar. It isn’t readily clear when either skater will play again. After Simek’s strong outing against Anaheim on Thursday, it doesn’t appear he’ll be scratched from the lineup as the Sharks roadie gets underway.

For the time being, though, the Sharks can take comfort in knowing they have two ready and willing options to choose from if they need someone to fill in on the blue line.

How Sharks can fill void on defense until Radim Simek re-joins team


How Sharks can fill void on defense until Radim Simek re-joins team

It's a darn good thing the Sharks have a bevy of talent coming up the pipeline -- especially on defense.

With news coming out of training camp Friday that Radim Simek is questionable to be ready for game-action when the season opens on Oct. 2, the focus shifts not just to when he might finally rejoin the team, but to who will most likely fill in that void on San Jose's blue line.

With four preseason games remaining, San Jose has a couple of options when it comes to filling in that roster spot.

Being that Simek is a left-handed shooter, the best bets to pencil into the roster from San Jose's group of young talent are Jacob Middleton and Mario Ferraro. Middleton has a strong chance of being the go-to guy, having been recalled from the Barracuda on a few occasions last season to fill in when the injury bug bit the Sharks' blue line especially hard.

Fans might remember Middleton's surprise NHL debut back in January when he went from prepping for a road trip with the Barracuda one night to practicing alongside Brent Burns the following morning. At that time, left-handed defensemen Simek and Marc-Edouard Vlasic were both out of the lineup.

Even with Middleton's prior experience at the NHL level, Ferraro will likely still be a consideration to make the opening night roster. The 21-year-old has been impressing the organization since he participated in rookie development camp back in July and has continued that trend through training camp. Ferraro also has recently been paired up in camp with Dalton Prout -- who the Sharks will likely keep in mind to fill in should one of their right-handed defensemen be sidelined.

Having a few different players who can file into the lineup also gives DeBoer more options as far as mixing and matching his d-pairs. Middleton filled right into Simek's spot alongside Burns last year, and should the pairing of Brenden Dillon and Erik Karlsson stay intact, the Middleton-Burns pairing could be reunited with Vlasic being paired up with Tim Heed. If both Ferraro and Prout demonstrate they're a reliable pair to start, the duo might get the nod which would keep Vlasic and Burns skating together as they have been through the start of the preseason.

Of course, those are just guesses as to how DeBoer's lineup will shake up until Simek comes back healthy.

Naturally, the best-case scenario is that Simek gets into the lineup sooner rather than later. San Jose did go 29-9-3 with a healthy Simek in the lineup last season, after all. Plus, Simek's ticket into a regular roster spot was his uncanny chemistry with Burns.

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That being said, the Sharks don't want to rush the Czech defenseman back into the lineup too quickly. Sure, Simek has been training for some time now, following surgery to repair the ACL and MCL in his right knee. Teammate Tomas Hertl told the press on the first day of camp that he talked to Simek over the summer and that the blueliner has been "working his ass off" to get back into playing shape. Nevertheless, the Sharks don't want to bring Simek back to quickly and risk him re-injuring himself.

At least the Sharks have good options for filling out their blue line until he returns.

Sharks' Erik Karlsson ranked No. 24 player in league by NHL Network

Sharks' Erik Karlsson ranked No. 24 player in league by NHL Network

Erik Karlsson is arguably the best player on the Sharks. According to NHL Network, San Jose's defenseman is the 24th-best player in the league.

In counting down the best players in the current NHL, the league's network placed Karlsson in between 25th-ranked David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins, and 23rd-rank Mark Giordano, the Flames' reigning Norris Trophy winner.

"We know that he can put the puck just about anywhere, he can skate himself out of trouble, he can pass himself out of trouble, he can do just about anything," NHL Network's Brian Lawton said of Karlsson. "For a defenseman in today's game that played on one leg basically last year … he did have 16 points in 19 playoff games and it wasn't quite enough, but it was pretty darn heroic if you ask me."

Karlsson totaled 45 points in 53 regular-season games with the Sharks after arriving in San Jose at the start of training camp last year. The Sharks had their best stretch of the season once he found his groove in early December, and if not for a troublesome groin injury, there's no telling how far San Jose could have gone.

The two-time Norris Trophy winner still managed to appear in the All-Star Game, and signed a lucrative eight-year extension with San Jose at the start of free agency. He tallied at least 62 points in each of the previous five seasons, and his 563 points since making his NHL debut are the most among all NHL defenseman, ahead of fellow Sharks defenseman Brent Burns (532).

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Karlsson will be an alternate captain in his second season with the franchise, and one would naturally expect him to benefit from having played a year in the system. He ranked sixth among NHL defensemen in points per game (0.85) last year, and with the departures San Jose suffered in free agency, it wouldn't be surprising to see that rate increase in the season ahead, particularly considering Karlsson says he feels "back to normal" after offseason surgery to address the injury that hampered him a year ago.

Assuming Karlsson stays healthy this coming season, you can expect him to be ranked even higher a year from now.